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Athleta’s Tracy Byrnes on her inspiration to innovate

PeopleTara R. Hunt, Gap Inc. bloggerComment

Design is in the details. And it takes obsession with detail to breathe life into that irresistible piece of clothing. These are the people behind the scenes at Gap Inc. — the dedicated professionals who push themselves every day to create customer experiences that resonate. Get to know these heroes of their craft.

Tracy Byrnes is always thinking about you. Whether she’s running — which she does often — cycling or doing yoga.

And she’s thinking of you when she’s working with her team on the particulars of fabric, or when she’s collaborating with designers on how form and function will come together in a product.

When it finally does come together, when the Tetris pieces all shift into place, Tracy can’t wait to share it with the customer.

Describing a garment she’s holding, it’s impressive to an outsider as she discusses the particulars of this product. The top, a base layer, was made without seams. It was knit circularly on a machine, like a sock, she says. That means it doesn’t have those side seams — those chafing-inducing ones you don’t notice until you start exercising — running up the torso. Constructing the top this way also ensures that one, continuous design or pattern wraps uninterrupted around a woman’s body.


Tracy gets that reaction all the time. As Athleta’s Sr. Manager of Innovation and Product Information, you could say a large part of her job is to elicit it. She creates performance wear women covet and, sometimes, they don’t even know that the details are why. Absent of a jangling zipper, a rubbing waistband, or shorts riding up, the clothes ensure you won’t be distracted during the precious time you have to work out.

According to Tracy, "That’s what we describe as innovation.”

Tracy is a translator, speaking both the language of Athleta’s fabric team and the language of the Athleta customer. While she’s comfortable discussing deniers (a unit of measurement for fabric density) and filaments, she’s equally at ease educating front-line sales associates about what those words mean to the a customer when it comes to product performance.

"I translate that to the athlete. I translate that to the customer in a way that’s meaningful to her,” Tracy says. “So we can fully understand: Why does this [product] exist?”

Tracy started her career in purchasing, which means she bought everything — from zippers to the fabric — that went into a garment, offering her serious grounding in what goes into a piece of clothing and why people should care. She then turned to developing high-performance fabrics. Which technical details matter most for a shirt, pair of pants, or piece of outerwear? What technologies are the premium mills working on, and how can Tracy bring them to life as something you can wear?

“That was an amazing thing to be able to learn about manufacturing,” she said. “To learn about what goes into a garment and how it’s constructed, because you’re in it. You can see it every day.”

It’s one thing to talk the talk, but Tracy walks the walk. More accurately, she runs it.

A long-distance runner, Tracy completed her first marathon in 2004. She wasn’t always a runner; in fact, she didn’t care much for it before the early-aughts. But she was always an athlete. As her career in performance wear moved in parallel tracks to her interests as an athlete, there was so much overlap, they became one and the same.

Tracy moved to Boulder, Colorado to ski and cycle. She worked at Pearl Izumi, outfitting elite cyclists and Tour de France teams, developing a keen awareness of what athletes need when they’re riding for eight hours a day or training in Belgium in the damp springtime.

She picked up running with the Bolder Boulder, an annual 10K foot race that draws the entire community. She moved steadily from there to a half marathon, to a full marathon, to qualifying for the Boston Marathon, to completing an Ironman triathlon.

“I am an athlete, and I know what it takes for a product to work and last,” Tracy said. “If we’re working to make a fiber stronger — a ‘type 6 or a ‘type 66 nylon with a special filament’ — what I can say to the customer is that, if she’s doing floor workouts, it’s not going to pill; it’s really going to last and look good for the long haul. The knees aren’t going to sag and bag. The butt’s not going to droop out. That fabric’s going to bounce back into place. It’s going to look good. It’s really going to move with her and not fail her.”

But it’s not just a matter of knowing the athlete and living the life. Product prototypes must undergo rigorous testing in the wild before they make it to customers. The team discusses how to innovate everything from hiking pants to winter training tights, putting the products through the ringer as they consider what’s working, what isn’t working, what’s missing and what could be improved.

Sometimes, a great idea even comes out of left field.


It’s true: the Wind Warrior Tight, which is part of the Winter 2015 collection, came out of a test in a place called Left Field.

"These are great moments when you can get out of the office, be in the environment, have these experiences, have these moments together to really talk about product, to have fun, to laugh, to fall in the’s a creative space,” Tracy added. “We believe that being outside is probably one of the most creative spaces you can be in.”

These days, when she’s not testing, translating, and finding opportunities at work and in life, she leads a lunchtime running group, inspiring coworkers to take advantage of the culture that drew her in all those years ago.

"Everything happened so quickly,” Tracy said. “But I just knew this was where I wanted to be. And I knew I wanted to be a part of this brand that had so much potential, that was so connected...the people and the culture just felt right for my soul.”